Numerous Parshios are devoted to the creation and fabrication of the Mishkan and its utensils. The details contained in these Torah portions are not simply the architectural framework for this sacred space and its vessels; these details contain the roadmap for successful, enriched and meaningful living.
“Betzalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. And he overlaid it with pure gold from inside and from outside, and he made for it a golden crown all around (Exodus 37:1-2).”
The Talmud (Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1) explains that the Ark was unique in its construction. It was comprised of three separate boxes. The innermost box was made of gold, the larger one which held it was made of wood, and the largest exterior box (which held the smaller two) was made of gold. This construction was quite unique. There were utensils made of solid gold and others made of wood coated with gold. Why did the Aron (Ark) have this unique construction of wood enveloped by gold?
The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) explains that the Aron was supposed to represent paradigmatic man. Every aspect and detail of the Ark teaches us how to self-actualize and live a meaningful and successful life. The male and female Cherubim (angelic figures perched on the lid of the ark) teach us to be passionate in our relationship with each other and with God. Their upstretched wings teach us that we must aspire to climb higher and accomplish more. The Luchos (tablets), resting in the center, remind us that the Torah and its values must be the foundation, core and center of the decisions we make and things we do. The poles that remained inserted, even when the Aron was at rest, teach us that the Torah and its values are transplantable and must follow us and inform the way we live – wherever we may go.
While both wood and gold can be used for construction their properties are fundamentally different. Gold is inanimate; it is mined from the earth and can be manipulated but cannot grow and cannot change. Wood is alive. The tree takes in nutrients; its branches grow and bear fruit. The tree changes with the seasons and through the years. The Aron contains both of these materials to teach another very important lesson.
Man must be gold and he must be wood.
I must possess golden principles that I will stand by and stand up for no matter what. I must possess a sense of right and good and be able to maintain them no matter how much external pressure I face. I must be rigid in my adherence to the tenets of my faith and the principles of my people. I must have gold-like, immutable resolve to uphold the ideas and ideals I hold sacred.
Yet, man must also learn to be a tree, to be wood-like in his approach to life and others.
I must learn the art of change and recognize that just because I have been a certain way until now does not mean I must continue to be that same person going forward. I must learn to adapt to new circumstances. Life doesn’t always go the way I planned or hoped – I can be wood, I can grow, I can change, I can adapt. Wood is pliable. I must learn that when dealing with others I cannot always stand my ground, I must learn when to yield for the sake of shalom (peace).
Man must be gold on his inside and his outside.
I must have the principles, ideas and ideals that I will live and die for. I must know what I believe and stand ready to defend those beliefs no matter how fierce the opposition may be. But I must possess an inner layer of wood and learn the art of compromise, change, accommodation and collaboration.
The Ark is only fit for service in the Temple if it has these multiple layers. Man can only be successful if he possesses them as well.
We were confused and overwhelmed. Moshe was gone for over forty days (according to our ancestors’ calculations) and the nation feared the worst. We built the Golden Calf, proclaimed it as our god and committed one of the most severe relationship trespasses in the history of our people. Hashem in His divine wrath, ordered Moshe to descend the mountain. But before Moshe left, God told him of His plan to destroy the Jewish people and begin again with Moshe. Moshe, the loving advocate of the Nation of Israel beggede and pleaded for Divine mercy for the fledgling Jewish nation.
Moses pleaded before the Lord, his God, and said: “Why, O Lord, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?” (Exodus 32:11)
What exactly was Moshe saying to God? “Why are You so angry?” Did Moshe not understand God’s anger and pain? Had Moshe somehow missed the severity of this act? How could he minimize what his beloved nation had just done? Furthermore, why does the Torah convey this exchange? What are we to learn from it? How are we to grow from this episode?
Rabbi Moshe Alshech (born in Turkey in 1507, and died in Safed in 1593) answers this question with a simple phrase, “HaBeyt u’reeh mey’heychan ba’u (look and see from where they came).” When someone we love makes a mistake we have two options. We can focus exclusively on the misdeed and mistake or we can take a step back and look at the person in totality, reminding ourselves of his/her positive traits and deeds. Moshe says, “Hashem, I know you are upset and I understand Your feelings of betrayal and sadness. But look how far they have come. This nation left Egypt just a few short months ago and in that short amount of time they have accomplished so much. They followed You into the desert. They followed You into the sea. They sang the magnificent words of Az Yashir with a united soul. They said Naaseh V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen) as one people with one heart. I know they messed up, but don’t just look at their mistakes, look at their accomplishments as well. Don’t just dwell on their failures, be cognizant of their successes.” Moshe was not minimizing God’s pain – he was trying to frame it appropriately and put it into a proper perspective.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains that we are obligated to “Dan es kol haAdam l’kaf zechus (Judge every person favorably).” We generally understand this to mean that we should try our best to give every person the benefit of the doubt. But the rabbis were ask us to do so much more. We must try to find the good in every person. We must seek out the redeeming qualities within the other – even when the other is profoundly compromised. We must condition ourselves to not only judge favorably; but to see that which is favorable within the other. The Rebbe explains that this is not only true with others – this is true with ourselves as well. We must strive to see the good we possess despite the multitude of mistakes we have made. The ability to see the good in others and the ability to see the good in myself requires one very important thing – perspective. We are able to judge both others and ourselves favorably when we are able to not only to see the negative shortcomings, but the beautiful qualities as well.
In Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 13) Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai asks his students, “What is the proper path a person should choose for himself?” In other words, what is the most important trait to possess? Rabbi Elazar responds, “Ayin tova (a good eye)”. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that a “good eye” refers to proper perspective. The ability to maintain proper perspective in life allows one to navigate all of life’s tumultuous circumstances and maintain relationships with all kinds of people.
It is in this gripping exchange between Moshe and God that the Torah teaches us the all-important need for proper perspective. Don’t just see the calf, see all of the holiness. Don’t just see the mistakes; look at all of the accomplishments. We don’t control many of the situations and circumstances in life – but we absolutely control the way we choose to look at ourselves, at others, and at life.
“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”
This Shabbos we remember. We remember what Amaleyk did to us thousands of years ago and we remember their hatred which has followed us through the millennia.
“You shall remember what Amaleyk did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. [Therefore,] it will be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around [you] in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amaleyk from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget (Devorim 25:17-19).”
Amaleyk was the first nation to wage war against us. There was no disputed territory or perceived slight, their attack was motivated by pure and unadulterated hatred. This hatred which defies comprehension has reared its ugly head throughout the generations. From our first encounter with this war-mongering nation to this very day, we must contend with enemies who seek our annihilation and destruction. We read this section on the Shabbos before Purim as the Talmud relates that Haman the archenemy of the Jewish people (in the Megillah) was a descendant of Amaleyk. What is it that we are supposed to remember? Is God telling us to remember that there are individuals and nations who hate us? Is the Torah reminding us to never forget that anti-Semitism exists? I do not believe we need a Biblical directive to remind us of this reality. We have struggled with it for thousands of years and we have seen a resurgence of this vitriol and hatred. Furthermore, on a textual level, if the Torah tells us to “remember”, why must it state, “you shall not forget”?
The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) explains that in order to appreciate the obligation to remember we must examine the initial episode. The Torah does not merely tell us that Amaleyk attacked; rather we are told how they attacked. “How he happened upon you…and cut off all the stragglers at your rear…(Devorim 25: 18).” Amaleyk did not launch a frontal assault; they chose to attack the weakest link, those who could not keep up with the rest of the camp. Apparently, there was a group who fell behind. Perhaps, it was the elderly, the sick or the very young? Perhaps, it was those who had no one to look after them? They were the first to feel the brunt of Amaleyk’s hatred. The Rebbe explains that this piece of information is intended to be a form of stinging rebuke. How could we have allowed people to be left behind? How could we have moved forward when there were still stragglers who couldn’t keep up? How could we have allowed precious Jewish souls to fall between the cracks? The Torah tells us why this happened, “v’ata ayef v’yagey’a (you were faint and weary).” We were too tired. We were too busy with our own lives and our own needs to be worried about those who couldn’t keep up. And so, we kept moving at a pace that suited us and assumed that the stragglers would somehow catch up.
“Zachor es asher asa lecha Amaleyk (Remember what Amaleyk did to you)” – Amaleyk saw that we did not look after those who couldn’t keep up and took advantage of this vulnerability. We must remember that there was a time when we were not sensitive enough to the other, when we did not look out for the needs of the stragglers. “Lo tishkach”- Don’t forget our lapse in proper conduct, don’t forget about the other.
We don’t need to be reminded that there are nations that despise us and yearn for our destruction. We need to be reminded to never again leave anyone behind. We must become sensitive to the needs of those who may not be able to keep up with the camp. We must be attentive to the needs of our elderly and make sure that our communities are empathic and embracing. We must care for the handicapped making sure that they are part our greater kehilla. We must make sure to extend a helping, loving and nurturing hand to those who suffer from physical and emotional illness. We must make sure that no Jew is ever left behind, no matter how slowly he or she needs to travel.
On Purim we will share packages of food with one another, Mishloach Manos. I recently heard someone bemoaning the fact that upon arriving home on Purim day they have difficulty getting in their front door because of all the baskets and food parcels left for them. If you have that problem, how fortunate you are. But there are many who are forgotten, overlooked and left behind. This Purim use your Mishloach Manos as a tool of inclusivity and love. Think about those who aren’t as socially connected and popular. Think about those who are struggling and alone. Use this mitzvah to help bring someone back into the camp.
It is on this Shabbos before Purim that we pledge to ourselves and to one another that no matter how vicious our external enemies may be – our national camp will always be a place of love, acceptance and refuge for all.
“And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood.” (Exodus 25:3-5)
Wealth is an incredible blessing from God. But like all blessings, one must know how to use it. What is the proper balance between personal benefit and enjoyment and communal responsibility? It is in this week’s Parsha that God asks the Jewish nation to use their newfound wealth to build a spiritual home and epicenter. The Mishkan would require complete financial participation of the nation. There would be some who would donate precious materials and stones and others who would contribute the necessary fabrics and materials. Rashi raises an interesting question, “from where did they have acacia wood in the desert?” The gold, silver, copper and even fine fabrics were taken from Egypt but where was the wood from? Rashi answers, “Yaakov Avinu prophetically saw that his children would build a mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert. Therefore, when he came down to Egypt, he brought with him acacia trees from the Land of Israel and planted them in Egypt. He commanded his children to take the wood with them when they left Egypt.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) asks, “Why did Yaakov have to do this? Why all of the effort? The people could have bought wood when they needed it. They could have bartered with neighboring tribes and nations.” The Rebbe advances a beautiful insight. When Yaakov came down to Egypt with his acacia saplings and planted them, people asked, “Why are you doing this?” To which Yaakov responded, “One day God will lead us out of this land, and we will travel to our home and destiny, but along that journey God will reside in our midst, in the home we will build for Him.” As Egyptian persecution intensified the Jews were able to look to the acacia trees and be reminded that one day this servitude would come to an end. And as they felt the sharp whips on their backs, the loads weighing down on their shoulders, their sons being thrown into the Nile, they looked at the acacia trees and reminded themselves, we will get out of this, we will overcome, we will be free. Our ancestors knew of the promise of slavery and redemption but having a physical reminder of salvation is what kept them from drowning in the abyss of darkness. The trees of Yaakov Avinu were the beacon of promised freedom and salvation. They were the physical “light at the end of the tunnel.”
We all experience difficult times; this is part of the human condition. The only variable is the intensity of adversity. In those times of hardship, it is easy to lose hope, optimism and positive disposition. We must find our acacia tree, the thing we can focus on to remind us that everything will be alright. For some it may be the presence of a loving spouse, for others it may be children, and yet, for many it may simply be the belief that God is my rock and He will never leave my side. We made it through 210 years of spirit-breaking servitude because when things looked dark and hope was almost lost, we looked up at the trees of Yaakov Avinu and were reminded, we will emerge from this, there will be light and happiness. The trees we saw every day of our enslavement became the walls of the home of God which inspired us throughout our days of freedom and destiny. May we each merit to plant our acacia trees and may they inspire us with the necessary hope, strength and resolve to make it through even the darkest of days.
“And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21:1)
Society is built on laws. Our legal system creates expectations, obligation and attempts to safeguard the individual from harm and society from decay. Mishpatim is filled with detailed laws regarding damages, fair treatment for servants, charity and looking out for the needs of the underprivileged. These laws serve to create an atmosphere of justice, fairness and compassion.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b) notes an interesting juxtaposition between the first verse in this week’s Parsha (mentioned above) and the last verse in Parshas Yisro; “And you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it (Exodus 20:23).” The Talmud explains:
Bar Kafra asked: ‘From where do we know the concept of hevu misunim b’din (one must be deliberate in judgement)? The verse says, ‘you shall not ascend with steps,” and then afterwards it says, ‘These are the laws.”
The Torah prohibits the use of stairs to ascend the altar – we must construct a ramp. A ramp represents incremental ascension, whereas as a step must be taken all at once. The Talmud explains that the juxtaposition of these verses teaches that just as the Kohen (priest) must ascend slowly to the top of the altar, so must the judge take his time in deciding and adjudicating the legal disputes before him. The judge must take the time to analyze, process and review all pertinent information before issuing a proper verdict. The placement of this important lesson comes at the end of Yisro, the parsha in which Moshe sets up the Jewish judicial system and the beginning of Mishpatim where Moshe gives us the body of tort and interpersonal law.
But there is another lesson to be learned, a lesson that applies to us all. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt’l (1902-1979) explains that the word misunim does not simply mean deliberate, it means patience. The Rabbis were not simply telling us to take our time in issuing judgement; they were telling us to learn the art of patience. Up until this point, whatever the people needed was provided immediately. They needed the sea to part – it split. They needed food – manna came down from the heavens. The desert was hot by day – there was constant cloud cover. The desert was cold at night – there was a fire to warm them. Whatever they needed – they were granted. And it is now that God instructs Moshe to tell the Jewish people – life is a ramp. You must take small steps to accomplish your goals. Your growth must be incremental. You won’t always see immediate results. You must work on creating a just society. You will not be able to solve all of the problems at once. There will be widows and orphans who you must help, yet you will never get to all of them. There will be the poor and hungry who you must clothe and feed, yet there will be those who remain destitute. At times you may feel frustrated and wonder if you are really accomplishing anything, you may wonder if you are really moving the needle on these dramatic life issues? And so, God tells us, you must be patient. You will accomplish, self-actualize, and grow – but it will all take time. I have provided you with instant gratification because in your embryonic national state – this is what you needed. But as you mature and develop – you will have to learn to wait. You will have to learn to be misunim b’din – patient, as you try to reach your goals.
We live in a world which craves instant gratification. We want it all and we want it now. And when we don’t get it – the process, the product or the person must be broken. Couples have challenges in their marriage and if the therapist can’t fix it immediately there is a temptation to throw in the towel. We take on certain responsibilities or embark on new life initiatives and if we can’t accomplish or cross the finish-line quickly we are ready to move on to other things. We work on finding inspiration in our Judaism and if we can’t feel it after one shiur, Drasha or lecture, we’re ready to move one. God teaches us that patience is not a virtue, it is a necessity. We must be patient and allow our efforts to bear fruit. We must be patient and find the strength to work through our challenges. If we learn to navigate the ramp of life, we will realize success as individuals and as a nation.
“It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. When Moses’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?” Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God. If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and His teachings.” Moses’ father in law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God (Exodus 13-19).”
Yisro made the journey from Midian to come and join the Jewish people as they traveled through the desert to the Promised Land. The reunion was emotional. Moshe greeted his esteemed father in law and was reunited with Tzipora and their sons. But by the next morning it was back to business as usual for the Jewish leader. He sat in judgement, resolving the disputes and disagreements of the nation. Yisro saw this “one-man show” and told Moshe that such a system was unsustainable, “you can’t do it alone.” Yisro advised Moshe to set up a court system. Moshe accepted the mussar and the suggestion.
But why did it take Yisro’s observations and suggestions to address this issue? The problem was obvious. One man (even Moshe Rabbeinu) can’t serve as the sole judge for an entire nation. The solution was seemingly straightforward and obvious; create a judicial framework. Why didn’t Moshe realize this idea on his own? Why was Yisro’ s prodding necessary to bring the Judaic judicial framework into existence?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) provides an incredible insight. Moshe received the Torah with incredible understanding and spiritual luminescence. This was a result of having it transmitted directly from God to him. This level of clarity is called re’iah (literally – sight). Moshe understood the Torah with the clarity of someone who had seen something with his own eyes. The Jewish people didn’t receive the communication directly from God, instead they chose to receive the Torah from Moshe (after the first two commandments). Their understanding was through the mechanism of shmiah(listening or hearing). Moshe wanted to convey the Torah to the people with the clarity with which he received it. His experience was the pinnacle of spiritual perfection and he wanted to share this experience with the people by adjudicating their cases, settling their disputes and teaching them through the prism of his clarity. He wanted it to be perfect. Yisro tells him, “my beloved son-in-law, your intentions are so good and pure. But if it is perfection you seek, navol tibol gam ata gam ha’am ha’zeh (you will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you). The goal can’t be perfection, the goal must be ’good.’” As the French author Voltaire wrote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Perfection is rarely achievable and if by some miracle it is achieved, it cannot be sustained. “Moshe, you will ruin yourself and the people if you pursue the ‘perfect.’”
Yisro’s judicial framework idea was not new and novel to Moshe. Moshe must have thought about it many times. But in Moshe’s mind, the idea of a judiciary framework that was “good” but not “perfect” was not acceptable. Yisro came along and explained – the pursuit of perfect will run you and the nation into the ground.
Who is correct? Do we pursue “perfection” or “good?” At the end of the day, Moshe accepted Yisro’s advice and established a system of judges and courts. This “dispute” is something we struggle with each
and every day. We all want perfect. We want a perfect marriage; we want perfect children and we want a perfect career. We want our friends to do exactly what we need when we need it and for life to follow our predetermined, chartered course. And when desires and aspiration don’t materialize perfectly, we become frustrated and upset. The goal should never be perfection. The goal is great (or even good depending on circumstance). If I expect a perfect marriage – that requires a perfect spouse. There is no human being who can deliver in that way. If we expect perfect children, we are setting them up for failure. If we wait to take advantage of life’s opportunities until the perfect one arrives, we will miss out on all the great opportunities which present themselves every single day. If we expect perfect results from ourselves, we become disillusioned, aggravated and ultimately, give up.
Perfection is alluring but not realistic. We must resist the temptation of perfection and embrace the good, great and excellent. Moshe was fortunate to have a Yisro to whisper in his ear. We are privileged to have a Torah which lights our way. May we find the strength to see the goodness in our loved ones, the greatness in our opportunities and the beauty in ourselves.
Dedicated in memory of Fraida bas Moshe Yosef z’l by her loving family.
“Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water.” (Exodus 15:22)
The Jewish people had seen miracle after miracle. The plagues, the splitting of the sea had culminated in the singing of the jubilant shira (song), Az Yashir. But now it was time to travel forward and embrace destiny. It was time to journey to Mount Sinai, receive the Torah and solidify our identity as the nation of God. Moshe told the people to ready themselves for the journey ahead, but they didn’t want to leave the banks of the Red Sea. The verse states, “VaYasa Moshe es ha’am mi’yam suf (Moshe led Israel away from the Red Sea)” and Rashi comments: “Moses led Israel away: lit., made Israel journey. He led them away against their will, for the Egyptians had adorned their steeds with ornaments of gold, silver, and precious stones, and the Israelites were finding them in the sea”.
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966), in his work titled Oznayim LaTorah, provides an incredible insight. With the crossing of the sea, the Jewish nation was catapulted to the heights of prophecy. They were able to see and perceive God in ways unimaginable to us. They sang with Moshe; they sang with Miriam and with each song felt closer and more connected to God. When Moshe told them, it was time to leave, they responded with one simple question, “Why?” Why would we leave this place of incredible holiness? It is here that we have experienced and connected with the Divine. Is this not the promised land? Is this not what we aspire to? Why would we want to be anywhere else but here? You have told us about Mount Sinai and the Land of Israel, but all we need spiritually and materially is right here. We feel no need to journey any further. And it was in this moment that Moshe taught the people an incredible lesson.
There are times in life when you must leave that which is comfortable and known for the opportunity to seize an even greater destiny. The banks of the Red Sea are wonderful – but there is something even better. In order to seize it, you will have travel into the desert of the unknown, give up your security and comfort and strike out into the wilderness. It appears that the people were unmoved by Moshe’s argument and so “VaYasa Moshe es ha’am (Moshe forcibly moved the people).”
There are times in life when we find ourselves by our personal Red Sea. I find a spot in life which is comfortable, predictable and secure. I settle on the banks of my life’s river and I feel good. It is a good spot spiritually and materially and I feel like I can dwell here for a long time. After all, what we crave most in life is predictability and security. But in those moments when we want to settle on the banks of our Yam Suf, the voice of Moshe whispers in our ears, “It’s time to move, it’s time to break camp, it’s time to travel to Mount Sinai.” In those moments in life when we get to ready to settle down and “coast” we must push ourselves to do more and be more. In those moment when we happily reflect on our accomplishments, we must ask ourselves, “what’s next?” Real growth only occurs when you are willing to leave your comfort zone and strike out into the unknown. May we find the courage to leave the banks of the Red Sea, venture into the desert, find meaning at Mount Sinai and continue travelling to our promised land.
Pharaoh continued his stiff-necked response to the plagues and refused to emancipate the Jewish people. His advisors told him it was a lost cause and Egypt would perish, but Pharaoh refused to heed their warnings. This week’s Parsha opens with the following verse:
The Lord said to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst.” (Exodus 10:1)
Rashi explains: “The Lord said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh: and warn him.” But what is the point in warning Pharaoh if God had hardened his heart? If Pharaoh had lost his free-will what impact would the warning have? Is this not an exercise in futility?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) provides an incredible insight:
“It is brought down in Tanya that even those for whom teshuva (repentance) is impossible, if such a person pushes forward and does in fact repent, his teshuva is accepted. So too here, although God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, he still had the opportunity to strengthen himself to repent and return. This is why Moshe was sent to “warn” Pharaoh. This warning reinforced the idea that Pharaoh still had the ability to change and turn things around. A warning is only significant if the individual has the capacity to change. Had Pharaoh done teshuva, it would have been accepted by God.” (Likutei Sichos)
At first glance, the Rebbe’s words seem incomprehensible and even contradictory, but upon further reflection we learn that man never completely loses his free-will. There may be times when free-will is compromised and other times when aspects of free-will might even be taken away – but it is never totally gone. Even Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by God Himself, had the ability to change. There is always a choice. God sends Moshe to warn Pharaoh to teach him that he can change these circumstances if he so chooses.
There are times in life when we feel a lack choices. We feel like the walls are closing in and we have no options or possibilities. Some experience these feelings in difficult and strained relationships which have been tenuous for so long that we don’t see a way to repair them. Some of us experience this in our careers when after doing something for a prolonged period of time, we feel limited in our ability to find additional meaning or to transition to something else. And then some of us experience this in how we view ourselves. “I’ve been a certain way for so long that I don’t think I have the ability or capacity to change.” Pharaoh comes along and teaches us that we always have a choice. You may not be able to choose many of your life circumstances but even in those situations which have been foisted upon you, there is always a choice to be made. As Victor Frankl wrote, “The last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” We are never without choices. At times I can choose my situation and path in life. Other times the path has been set for me, but I still get to choose what I do with this path.
There are many layers of tragedy in the slavery naarative. There is the tragedy of an oppressed people, there is the tragedy of murder and bloodshed and there is a tragedy of a Pharaoh who could have prevented so much pain had he realized that he still had a choice. There is always a choice to be made, may we find the courage to make it.
Redemption had begun but it was a slow and long process. The fury of the plagues was unleashed on Egypt and yet, Pharaoh still refused to emancipate the Jewish nation.
The Lord said to Moses, “Stretch forth your hand heavenward, and hail will be upon the entire land of Egypt, upon man and upon beast and upon all the vegetation of the field in the land of Egypt.” So, Moses stretched forth his staff heavenward, and the Lord gave forth thunder and hail, and fire came down to the earth, and the Lord rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been throughout the entire land of Egypt since it had become a nation.” (Exodus 9:22-24)
Rashi explains that this was miraculous hail, “it was a miracle in a miracle, fire and water were mixed together. In order to fulfill the will of their Creator, they created peace between themselves.” Hail stones comprised of opposites, fire and water rained down on Egypt. Each plague contained a message for the Egyptians and the Jews. It was during this plague of barad (hail) that we learned the world is filled with different kinds of people. Every person has a place and every person has a purpose. The Egyptians felt that they had the right to subjugate and persecute the Jewish nation. They felt that their perceived superiority provided them with full autonomy and control over the Children of Abraham. They didn’t perceive what they were doing as evil, they understood it to be quite justifiable. The weak serve the strong, the few serve the many. The Egyptians were the master race and therefore, had every right to do what was needed to advance their own society even if it meant exploiting another nation.
Persecution and subjugation occur when one group feels a level of superiority over another. There are no two more opposite forces than fire and water. It would be easy for fire to feel superior to try to burn up or consume water. It would be just as easy for water to feel superior and try to extinguish fire. Yet, in this plague, both fire and water recognized the greatness and importance of the other and worked together to create something miraculous. In fact, they demonstrated that neither was more important, accepted their differences and worked togetherto sanctify the name of God.
“The Sages in Yavne were wont to say: I who learn Torah am God’s creature and my counterpart who engages in other labor is God’s creature. My work is in the city and his work is in the field. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. And just as he does not presume to perform my work, so I do not presume to perform his work. Lest you say: I engage in Torah study a lot, while he only engages in Torah study a little, so I am better than he, it has already been taught: One who brings a substantial sacrifice and one who brings a meager sacrifice have equal merit, as long as he directs his heart towards Heaven.” (Tractate Berachos 17a)
It would be easy for the Torah scholar to feel superior to the farmer. After all the Torah scholar spends his days plumbing the depths of God’s Torah and ascending to lofty levels of holiness. His soul is filled with holiness, while the farmer’s hands are filled with dirt. The scholar tills the secrets of the Talmud while the farmer simply tills the soil. Yet, the great rabbis of yesteryear understood that despite our difference we are all important. Each of us has a place, each of us has a mission and if we work together, we advance the cause of holiness and spirituality.
Society has become fractured and polarized. Too often we live with the mantra, “if you don’t share my opinions you are worthless. If you don’t subscribe to my views, political affiliations, religious doctrines, societal outlooks, then you have no value in my eyes.” The world is filled with fire and water. The water spends so much time and energy trying to extinguish the fire and the fire expends so much energy trying to consume the water. In Egypt we saw how fire and water can coexist. We saw that there is room for respect even in the midst of disagreement. We saw how opposites can come together to work towards a common goal and yet still maintain their respective differences and unique identities. When water and fire stop trying to conquer each other and begin to work together, they bring salvation just a bit closer. Let us try to find ways to build bridges with the people who are fire and water within our lives and in doing so feel the redemptive embrace of our Creator.